Israel Pulse

Israeli Politicians Compete for 'Right-Wing' Etiquette

Article Summary
The upcoming Israeli elections are dominated by a strong ''turning to the right'' phenomenon, which sweeps not only the center-right wing, but even the Left Israeli Labor party, writes Mazal Mualem. 

On Dec. 21, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a thorny dilemma: Should he engage in a media blitz against extreme right-party HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, who gave ideological legitimization for refusal to obey military orders during the evacuation of settlements a day earlier, or just ignore him. In order to understand the depth of the dilemma, we must first recognize the most prominent phenomenon in the current election campaign. That is the “strong turn to the Right” of almost all the parties in the “Centrist-Left-moderate Right” bloc, as a means of gaining additional votes in the ballot-box in less than a month’s time.

In the feverish, internal discussions held in the Likud-Beitenu election headquarters, reservations were expressed that an attack on Bennett from the Likud-Beitenu, let alone from Netanyahu, might achieve the opposite results. In other words, it might strengthen Bennett’s right-wing image, thus gaining more mandates for him — at their expense. Netanyahu’s attack might be understood as a sign that Netanyahu intends to evacuate settlements after the elections.

On the other hand, some of Netanyahu’s advisors felt that as prime minister could not simply ignore Bennett’s statement, a statement that effectively legitimizes the refusal to obey orders — a phenomenon that was always viewed as marginal and dangerous in Israeli society. The assessment was that if Netanyahu would keep silent, he would be pummeled by all the parties on the spectrum between the moderate Left, through the numerous Centrist parties, and as far as the moderate Right. Those advisors argued that his silence could cost him heavy electoral losses. But beyond all these considerations was the sense of victory that spread throughout the Likud-Beitenu headquarters that morning; a triumph that stemmed from the fact that finally, the opportunity had fallen into their laps to strike out against the “Cinderella” of the 2013 election campaign. Bennett’s party had been growing from week to week at the Likud’s expense, and now they had the opportunity to punch him back. Therefore, they could not afford to let Bennett get away.

To this we must, of course, add Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal motivation: Bennett has served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff when the latter was head of the opposition. Bennett left the post on the background of conflicts between him and the PM's spouse, Sarah Netanyahu, and now he has turned into Netanyahu’s main headache in the elections.

In the end, Netanyahu chose one of the horns of the dilemma — the condemnation. He summoned the three television stations to his office for special interviews and announced unequivocally, “there will not be room in my government for anyone who supports refusal to obey orders.” As anticipated, Netanyahu’s announcement took over the agenda, and for a moment it looked as if Bennett had shot himself in the leg; that this time, in his call for order-refusal, he had taken a too-strong turn to the Right. But guess what happened in the end: polls conducted by the Likud-Beitenu headquarters on Dec. 23 showed that Bennett had actually gathered strength, even significantly, and Netanyahu’s severe attacks on Bennett had ultimately strengthened the latter — again, at Likud-Beitenu’s expense.

It should be noted that in contrast to Netanyahu, Bennett did not face a dilemma. He did not retreat, he did not go back on his words. Of course he knew that the moment he would apologize, he would lose considerable support of the ultra-Right. Later on he even spoke out against Netanyahu, portraying him as someone willing to split the Right-wing camp only to gain a third of a mandate; this strengthened him even more among his supporters. A poll of Haaretz conducted four days after the refusal-uproar, proved that Bennett was right. He increased his power by two mandates, from 11 to 13. Meanwhile, Likud-Beitenu declined proportionally to only 35 mandates (seven mandates less than their present size of the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu combined).

This story is additional testimony to the Right-wing tilt of the Israeli political system in recent years, and mainly under Netanyahu’s recent term of office as prime minister.

How did Israel get into this spin? This is the apex of a process that began immediately after the disengagement was carried out in the summer of 2005. The evacuation of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip left the settlers under a trauma from which they have not yet recovered.

Until then they believed that no prime minister from the Right — and certainly not someone like Ariel Sharon who had been personally responsible for the founding of countless settlements — would dare to order the evacuation of settlements. This concept collapsed, but simultaneously with the great trauma, a new concept was born: massive sign-up for Likud membership to prevent the ruling party to carry out a similar procedure in the future. This is exactly how Moshe Feiglin has operated in the Likud for more than a decade.

Thus, thousands of settlers have systematically become members of the Likud in recent years, accumulating more and more power (numbering 15,000 voters out of about 130,000). By the way, what adds to their power is the fact that these members, in contrast to most of the veteran Likud members, do not remain at home when it rains outside; they come en masse to vote [in the primary elections], with lists from home. This way, they assist “their” Knesset members — in other words those who represent the more radical Right in the Likud like Danny Danon, Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin — to work their way into the top ten places in the party’s primaries.

The victims of this organized membership campaign was — how symbolic — the highly regarded, veteran ministers from the moderate Right (the ones who were once called “the Likud princes”) such as Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Mickey [Michael] Eitan. These remained outside the list only because in their list of priorities, a High Court of Justice ruling takes precedence over the Migron outpost. Then Netanyahu, who tried to assist them, discovered that he has no influence on his party, because he is also captive of the extreme Right.

Seven years after the disengagement, the settler’s strategy has proved itself a tremendous success. They have a proven grip in the ruling party, its institutions and factions, and their representatives are designated to prevent the prime minister from carrying out evacuations when the time comes.

But the greatest success of the settlers is the fact that simultaneously with their influence in the Likud, they also have a party of their own — the HaBayit HaYehudi [party] under Bennett is growing and thriving ever since he was elected. In other words, on the one hand — they vote for the Likud [primaries] and influence the party from the inside, but their votes on Knesset election day are given at the ballot-box to another party, a more Right-wing one. The importance of this is that the extreme Right will have a representation of more than 30 Knesset members in the 19th Knesset.

Incidentally, Bennett himself is a fascinating phenomenon. Until a few months ago, the man was anonymous to the general public. He took the Right by storm with his ultra-Right wing approach that resolutely opposes the idea of the two-state solution. For example, he views Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech as no less than a disaster. Let us put it differently: When Netanyahu is ‘attacked’ by a bout of construction mania in East Jerusalem and announces at the Likud-Beitenu election campaign launching ceremony that “we will continue to strengthen the settlements,” he is doing this as a reaction to Bennett. When faced with Bennett as a strategic threat, it doesn’t matter to Netanyahu if he causes serious damage to the State of Israel’s foreign relations.

But it doesn’t stop with Netanyahu and the Right. The Center-Left parties are also turning to the Right. When Labor Party Chairman Shelly Yachimovich neglects the ethos of her own party, hides the Rabin’s legacy and peace in the party platform and even calls for budgetary support of the settlers in a transparent attempt to win over voters from the right -- it is clear that something strange is happening to the Israeli political system.

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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